St. George's Episcopal Church | Arlington

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Charleston and Being the Church

    Category: Social Justice & Racial Reconciliation

    Speaker: The Rev. Shearon Sykes Williams

    Today we come together with heavy hearts and minds. We have come so far in so many ways on the road to racial reconciliation, and yet, we clearly have miles to trod. On Wednesday night, 10 people gathered for Bible study at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, just as they did every Wednesday night. And after an hour of discussion, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, DePayne Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons and Myra Thompson, all lost their lives. These folks were the core group of their church community. The people who were always there, rain or shine. The Church was the center of their lives. And this particular church, their church, had been at the center of the black community for 199 years. Mother Emanuel, as she is lovingly referred to by many, has had a proud and incredibly resilient history.

    To borrow Paul’s words from today’s Letter to the Corinthians, Mother Emanuel, as a servant community of God has commended herself in every way throughout her history: “through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.” (New Revised Standard Version)

    Paul wrote these words to encourage the fledgling Christian community he founded in Corinth back in the first century A.D. Paul started countless churches throughout the ancient Roman world, and he wrote to them after he had moved on to the next area. He always tried to keep them on track when internal divisions and misunderstandings started cropping up or when external political and social realities threatened. Christianity was illegal. Christians were persecuted. Christians formed a subculture, a counter culture really, that understood the world in an upside down way. Paul was a master of framing and re-framing their experience for them in faith terms. He was always reminding them that the suffering they endured because of their faith, was an extension of Christ’s suffering, and that their suffering did not have the last word because they claimed the resurrection of Christ, his victory over the very real forces of evil and death in this world. And this was not a detached, abstract theological reflection for Paul. He was writing these words about beatings and all manner of violence because he had experienced them. He had been imprisoned repeatedly for preaching the Gospel. He knew, from personal experience, that it is the hardest thing of all to keep your faith, to keep hope alive, when people are literally trying to destroy you and all you stand for. But hope is essential. Hope is everything. And hope doesn’t depend on externals.

    The people of Mother Emanuel know something about hope. They have refused to let their collective Spirit die, despite unspeakable suffering over their 199 history. As Roberta Costa, David Fahrenthold and Sarah Kaplan described in an article in Friday’s Washington Post (6/19/15), since her founding, Emanuel has been “…burned. Forced underground. Destroyed by an earthquake. Smashed by a hurricane. Each time, Emanuel came back. The same church that had birthed a slave rebellion in 1822 survived to incubate the civil rights movement in Charleston in the 1950s and 60s.”

    And even as the external threats to Emanuel have lessened since then, and their numbers have gotten smaller, the faithful remnant has held the light and their church has continued to be a powerful symbol of hope and never, ever giving up, always claiming the power of the resurrection, “through great endurance…and the power of God.” Like Paul and the early Christian community, the people of Mother Emanuel have always understood Christian faith in very real, immediate terms, with a sense of call, a keen sense of vocation to change a broken world through their witness, working to bring about a new heaven and a new earth through prayer and action.

    A quote on Emanuel A.M.E’s homepage takes on a whole new power and poignancy in light of the killings on Wednesday night. “Jesus died a passionate death for us, so our love for Him should be passionate.” Sister Jean German Ortiz

    The people who died are not just “the people who died.” It’s important to remember them individually. They were Myra, Daniel, Tywanza, Ethel, Susie, Cynthia, DePayne and Sharonda. They were also core leaders of Emanuel A.M.E. They were the pillars, the choir members, the ushers, the Sunday school teachers, the “go to” people you could count on, the people who were there every Sunday and many days in-between doing the Lord’s work at church and in the world around them. They were passionate people with a passionate love for Jesus and their fellow man. Tywanza was the youngest at 26 and Susie was 87. That is one of the most beautiful things about being a passionate member of a passionate Christian community. It’s not about age or position in life. It’s about being God’s people – together.

    I don’t know what worship looks like this morning at their regular 9:30 service, but there is no doubt in my mind that it is happening, right now, even without their beloved shepherd, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, I’m sure it’s happening. Because despite everything- all of the horrible things that have happened to that faithful community over the past 199 years, they are survivors. Resurrection always, always happens at Emanuel A.M.E. “Jesus died a passionate death for us, so our love for him should be passionate.” No matter what.

    That incredible, passionate love was in action yesterday, as family members of the victims, through tears, told Dylann Roof, the young man accused of killing their loved ones, that they FORGIVE him, that they forgive him because they refuse to let hate win. Our faith calls us to forgive. It’s the absolute hardest thing that we human beings have to do, but we do have to do it. We have to forgive because if we don’t, the seeds of hatred grow into the fruit of violence, and the same forces that seem to have overtaken Dylann’s life, can overtake ours. None of us is immune. “The spiritual forces of wickedness” that we renounce in today’s baptism, are very real. Sometimes they are subtle, and sometimes they are blatantly obvious, and they can take root in our hearts so easily. We have to be aware and we have to be vigilant in refusing to let them take root.

    So where does this leave us this morning, the people of Saint George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia, 500 miles away from Charleston, South Carolina? What can we DO in response to what has happened?

    First, we can pray. We can pray for each person who died– by name. We can pray for Dylann, perhaps most especially for Dylann. We can pray for the people of Charleston. We can pray for our collective social consciousness. We can pray for the people of Emanuel A.M.E. – that that same vibrant sense of the Holy Spirit at work in their lives for 199 years- against all odds, will again enable them to rise from the ashes to be a beacon of hope and change. Prayer matters. It really and truly matters. It changes us and leads to change in the world. We must never underestimate the power of prayer, daily individual prayer and especially praying together as a community of faith.

    Second, we can recommit to coming to church regularly if we don’t already have that practice. The fact that each of us decided to come today is huge. The very act of coming together in worship is healing. And it affects the healing of Emanuel A.M.E. We all have an increased sense of solidarity this morning. We can all reclaim our sense of the immediacy and the power of our faith to change the world. We must never forget that the civil rights movement started in the Black Church. We must always remember that the Church- US- still has a call to work for racial reconciliation in the world. We might live in a very different cultural context, in progressive Arlington County, but racial divisions and attitudes are woven into everything. We are not immune.

    Third, we can come to the discussion of The Cross and the Lynching Tree , written by James Cone, at 9:30 on Sunday mornings for the next 5 weeks. We have the power to decide that what has happened in Charleston is important enough to devote that extra 45 minutes on Sunday morning. Racial reconciliation became a top focus for our bishops this year in the aftermath of the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri. We had diocesan listening sessions to share life experiences in order to begin a dialogue about how to move forward in this important work. And today we have another chance to engage. My hope is that through our discussion of The Cross and the Lynching Tree, we will all get some new insights, coming out of the individual experiences and shared wisdom of the group, and the work of the Holy Spirit in our group, about concrete actions we can take to move us forward. It’s hard to walk into that space, to be vulnerable, to talk about something that has such a charge to it, but we have to have the courage to enter in and name our fears and listen deeply to others if we are to live our faith in an embodied way. So today, we have a chance to BE the Church, to pray, to listen, and to seek new ways of working for justice and peace, trusting that God is with us, leading us and guiding us every step of the way.

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